This was a book that meets my interests almost perfectly – I’m fascinated both by the study of empathy and cultural representations of sociopathy. And I love watching TV. But Adam Kotsko‘s approach to the subject fits evidence to argument and asserts where it should inquire.
To science or not to science?
Kotsko begins by indicating that he is interested in cultural representations of sociopathy, not sociopathy itself, but comments that “the usefulness of sociopathy as a diagnostic category is in any case disputed [pp2]”. Despite this half-hearted resolution, he often makes strong pronouncements about human nature and empathy in the course of his argument. He opposes the idea of biologically-rooted sociality, saying that:
Rather than coming down from heaven or being grounded in some kind of natural law (such as the biological or evolutionary imperatives that supposedly ground the family structure), our social orders are long-term strategies for dealing with each other, tools that are useful in a given time and place with no guarantee that they will last. [pp14-15]
This contentious assertion casually cuts across the broad and fractious field on the evolution of human social nature, which, excluded from this field of study, are not to be discussed or even referenced. And as this is a cultural study, evidence for the author’s assertion about biology is, of course, unnecessary.
We see this problem again when, in discussing Dexter, Kotsko discusses the title character’s frequent agonising over his inability to form human connections.
Listening to Dexter’s monologues about this gap between his performance and the feelings others supposedly “really” have, it struck me that his problem stems from the very fact that he thinks he’s missing out on something. What is a genuinely nice guy, for instance, if not someone who is in the habit of acting like a nice guy? How many people, when consoling a friend, honestly feel empathy in any gut-level way? [pp85]
The sociopath is apparently no different from the rest of humanity, only he has not internalised social structures in the same way. Again, Kotsko is not interested in evidence, he’s only interested in making sweeping assertions about the characteristics of human social bonds, claiming that “in reality everyone else is mostly just going through the motions as well”[pp85].
In culture as in reality, Kotsko has an argument and he fits his evidence to suit it, or just says that the evidence is wrong. We see this in his comments about Up in the Air, the George Clooney film about a professional redundancy consultant. Clooney’s character, detached from human relations but expert at manipulating them, certainly fits the fantasy sociopath role, but the film ends after his effort to form a lasting relationship fails, inspiring him to try and build new friendships. Kotsko is unhappy with this, saying that:
the ending was culturally necessary, as it seems nearly impossible for mainstream entertainment (and even much “high-brow” material) to present a sociopathic character without staging some kind of confrontation with the “true humanity” of deep human connection. [pp11]
Here, Kotsko has hit on what seems to me an accurate assessment of the fantasy sociopath and its role in our culture. He just doesn’t like it.
We love sociopaths as long as they’re not really sociopaths
Fantasy sociopaths are almost always troubled by their sociopathy and wish to form genuine human connections. In many of them, the drama is precisely between these contradictory drives. In True Blood and the Sookie Stackhouse novels the vampires, and particularly Eric, are quintessential sociopaths, relating to each through a mixture of strict hierarchical coercion and a horizontal debt network of coercive ‘favours’. ***SPOILER ALERT**** In one incident from the books, Eric threatens to allow Sookie to be raped and killed unless she gives him information (the assailant is literally on top of her at the time). Yet the drama is often supplied through Sookie’s capacity to bring their emotional fuzziness to the surface, turning cold-hearted killers and businessmen into sappy suitors with impressive regularity. Similarly, Dexter does not simply agonise over his inability to form human connections, he actively attempts to overcome it. His character development is about him becoming more and more human, while still retaining his murderous inhumanity.
This twin nature is surely the root of the fantasy sociopaths’ audience appeal. The sociopaths can be all the things that we admire in power elites: ruthless, cunning, successful and so on, but still seeking the sort of friendships and romantic relationships that we value so much. They are the perfect representation of cultural Stockholm Syndrome; we can respect and admire the traits of power, but for love we need the traits of humanity. In suggesting that we can meet both desires, these shows allow us to have our sociopathic cake and eat it too.
Are there positive aspects to cultural sociopathy?
After exploring the possibility that trope’s prevalence does indeed indicate a sort of “collective Stockholm Syndrome”[pp77], Kotsko withdraws from this argument as ‘unsatisfying’, moving on to assert that, in their capacity to transcend the constraints of social norms, sociopaths could perhaps build human connections that hint at a better social structure.
What these reflections point toward is the figure of a more radically sociopathic sociopath, who combines the joy of the schemer and the single-mindedness of the enforcer with the creativity, persuasiveness, and unsentimental outlook of the climber. Such sociopaths could use the norms of our present social order without being bound by them and could form relationships based on enjoyment and the desire to know the other person rather than out of sentiment and obligation. I would even dare to say that radical sociopaths of this type could very well be the ones to invent a “better game” than the stultifying game of chess adult life under late capitalism has become, drawing people in through the persuasiveness of their very way of being in the world – and that’s because it seems to me that many of the great cultural innovators, such as Jesus, Buddha, or Socrates, have been sociopathic in just the sense that I’m describing. [pp99-100]
Kotsko’s vision of positive sociopathy is one that goes through sociopathy and out the other side; it seeks a community of sociopathy where people truly ‘know‘ one another. For him, the sociopath is a superman, one who rises above the petty herd and finds community only with his ilk. The disdainful attitude towards ‘sentiment’ begs the question of empathy’s role in human relationships. Is this mere sentiment as well? Are human relationships within capitalism hopelessly trapped within the constraints of sentimentality? Will we achieve a better world by becoming more individualistic and less concerned with the plight of others? Instead of concern for the collective we should seek ourselves; Kotsko approaches socialism via Ayn Rand, bypassing scientific study en route.
Ultimately, Kotsko’s desire to discount the ‘pro-social’ traits of fantasy sociopaths leads him to miss the point, but it also relies on a cultural relativism that is fittingly unanchored in reality. In dismissing the ways in which characters such as Dexter become human to the audience, he dismisses the social structures by which they seek to build connections and indeed any effort at building relationships that does not operate through his vision of ‘positive sociopathy’. In arguing that human relationships are just another aspect of the corrupt structures that climbers seek to escape, he discounts love, friendship and mutual respect.
Instead of Kotsko’s shaky proposition of positive sociopathy, I would suggest that the best we can hope for is ‘the selective sociopath’. While Dexter offers the spectacle of a sociopath struggling to achieve genuine human relationships and somehow manage his desire to kill within them, True Blood and the novels present a normal woman who gradually acquires sociopathy in order to protect herself and her loved ones. Sookie’s involvement in the dangerous parallel world of supernatural creatures frequently forces her to kill and, as the books and shows progress, she becomes more and more competent at eliminating those who threaten her. Indeed **SPOILER ALERT** the book Dead Reckoning pushes her to take the lead in planning and executing a dangerous assassination plot. She feels bad about it later, but she’s clear that it was the right thing to do. The selective sociopath has an emotional tap (faucet) that can be turned off as needed. Indeed, Sookie’s newfound ability carries over to her love life. When she decides that a relationship is wrong for her, she ends it, sharply and definitively, even though she knows it will cause her pain. Sookie offers a reasonable resolution of the problem – we can improve our lives by acting rationally and coldly on occasion without sacrificing the emotional core of our humanity.
The twin desires projected onto the fantasy sociopath are the desire for power and the desire for love. We feel the contradiction between the two but we don’t know how to resolve it. Without power we will be victims. With it, we may be beyond humanity. Kotsko’s original hypothesis is not a bad one:
the sociopaths we watch on TV allow us to indulge in a kind of thought experiment, based on the question: “What if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?” And the answer they provide? “Then I would be powerful and free. [pp4]
But we don’t really want to be sociopaths. We want to be able to care about people, but also to be able to turn that off, to act coldly and pragmatically in the pursuit of our own interests. We would like to succeed in life (and sociopathy seems to be the way to do it) but we want to hold onto the human relationships that make us happy. The cultural sociopath is the representation of this division; power is amoral, but normal humans are not. This figure is a fantasy resolution of the dilemma.
I got the power?
The larger problem is this equation of powerlessness with emotional connection. The fictional sociopath is the cultural representation of power. Power in our world is indeed sociopathic, so this is not surprising. We cannot see a form of power that is built upon our connections; only the individual who can rise above others is powerful. Kotsko’s positive dream, that sociopaths will achieve a better form of community after they have transcended existing social norms shares the problems of its subject (it does not understand social norms), but it has a hint of truth. Social norms do play a role in limiting our power, but only insofar as they keep us from collective action. Ultimately we will not change a sociopathic system by all becoming sociopaths. We will do it by finding out that it is really isolation that is our weakness and that unity can make us strong.